Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Disability-Inspiration Correlation (Guest post)

An interesting correlation exists between living with a disability and the word “inspirational.” The connection stems from good intentions by able-bodied individuals, but a closer look exposes some concerning notions. Much credit goes to UK comedian Lawrence Clark for delving into the issue within his comedy.

Since I feel Lawrence Clark words his point well I won’t paraphrase. Rather, enjoy this direct quote from Clark’s The Guardian article “Laurence Clark: My Life as a Superhero.” “I came to realise that the less fortunate you are perceived to be, the less you have to achieve before you're labeled ‘inspiring.’ It (calling me inspirational) was a polite way of people telling me they thought I probably wouldn't amount to much, but had somehow surpassed their low expectations.”

Now these sentiments from Laurence Clark left me momentarily second-guessing publishing my teenage memoir Off Balanced, which explores how having a mild case of cerebral palsy affected me socially as an adolescent. While writing Off Balanced I hoped to capture an inspirational tone. Given this goal, did I cater to and thus consequently endorse able-bodied individuals’ low expectations of the disability community?

The question gains intrigue when you ponder the first time someone called me an inspiration. Allow me to flashback to December 2008, my senior year in college. After finishing my music theory final I went to turn in my test. As I handed Sister Karita my work she looked up at me and said “Zach, you’re an inspiration to anyone who has to overcome challenges, physical or otherwise.”

Wow!” I thought. I never considered myself inspirational before. My cerebral palsy did cause me to work harder at various tasks but I considered this life, not reason to stand on a metaphorical pedestal and claim “I’m an inspiration.” Yet Sister Karita’s compliment enabled me to see my life from a different perspective and planted a seed which eventually led me to pen Off Balanced.

So again I ask, did I cater to and thus consequently endorse able-bodied individuals’ low expectations of the disability community? I say no because my intentions expand beyond a general “I live with a disability so I’m inspirational” concept. I concentrated on writing my book in a way which could reach teenagers discouraged by their handicaps and teach them to stop throwing themselves pity parties.

Laurence Clark admits in his aforementioned article, “I have achieved things I wouldn't mind being considered inspiring; I am a proud runner-up in the Amused Moose Laughter Awards. If this inspires a young comic, that would be brilliant: after all, I wouldn't be doing what I do today had I not been inspired by Dave Gorman's show.”

Bottom line, appropriately deeming somebody living with a disability “inspirational” comes down to context. Simply living with a disability doesn’t justify the “inspiring” label. Just like any able-bodied inspiration, such praise should earn merit based off the person’s actions and motives.

Author and freelance writer Zachary Fenell regularly blogs at and writes for The Mobility Resource. His book Off Balanced remains available for the Kindle and Nook. To learn more about Fenell visit Contact him at @zacharyfenell on Twitter or by emailing


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